Afghanistan – Where is the exit?

As voters head to the polling booths in the United States and New Zealand, Americans are being promised a major review of military strategy in Afghanistan. As partners in that strategy, we should also ask ourselves: where is the exit?

Afghanistan has never rated real political attention in New Zealand.

In the weeks following 9/11 2001, we rushed to war in the blood-heat generated by Al Qaeda’s brutal act of mass terrorism in New York.

Few argued against the Labour-led coalition’s immediate decision to join the hunt for Osama bin Ladin and his Al Qaeda accomplices, and punish the savage Taliban hosts who sheltered them in Afghanistan.

Seven years later, little progress has been made towards those primary war goals. The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated to the point where the annual toll of deaths and casualties is back to the level experienced in the first year of the 2001 invasion.

Other nations in the “Coalition of the Willing” are engaging in vigorous debates about the right course for resolving the conflict that racks Afghanistan – but not New Zealand.

To date, we have been enormously lucky. The longest foreign military engagement in our short history has been managed in a manner that has not troubled the public mind. A very few casualties, no deaths, and one glowing act of heroism mark our involvement in this war – so far.

Our luck may be running out. New Zealand troops, returning last week from their tour of duty in relatively peaceful Bamyan province, brought home a worrying message. The Taliban presence around Kiwibase is growing, and, increasingly, they are targeting the New Zealand troops. Major Justin De La Haye told the New Zealand Herald:

"There have been wins and losses in all areas and, overall, Bamiyan has been good. But there's definitely a growing [Taliban] presence. In Bamiyan they are starting to get more confident and try new things, including targeting New Zealand forces".

The Taliban are moving into the central highlands of Afghanistan to exploit an expanding canopy of discontents. Ethnic conflict between the resident Hazaras [a Shia Muslim minority in Afghanistan] and the nomadic Kuchi is on the rise. A crop failure leaves a quarter of the population of Bamyan dependant on food aid this winter.

Life is going to get tough for our peacekeepers in Bamyan.

In a very small way, the New Zealand Government recognized the growing vulnerability of our position in Afghanistan, when it authorised the deployment of an additional 18 infantry troops to protect the provincial reconstruction team at Kiwibase and its support team at Bagram airbase.

Until now, there has been no public admission that the Government has been receiving and resisting formal requests for far more significant troop commitments – and for those troops to take up combat duties instead of peace-keeping roles.

Responding to an Official Information Act inquiry, Defence Minister Phil Goff confirms that last year the Government received two formal written requests from “other countries or international organizations” to commit New Zealand troops to combat duties, and an unspecified number of requests that were “received verbally at the diplomatic level.”

Goff declines to name the nations or international organizations involved or to provide the Government’s response to their requests. He simply emphasizes that ”no New Zealand Defence Force personnel have been committed to combat-related roles or duties in Afghanistan since 2005.”

The turning point in our unquestioning commitment to combat duties under a US-led strategy seems to have come a year before that, in 2004.

The stories of inhumane and illegal treatment of detainees held captive in Afghanistan or transported to the Guantanamo detention centre had started flooding into the international media.

On 31 March 2004, New Zealand cabinet ministers received a strange paper from their advisors in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“In the context of the New Zealand Special Air Service deployment [material deleted] and the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan, it may be necessary to detain individuals who are members of Al Qaeda, remnants of the Taleban or otherwise pose a threat to the mission. It is therefore prudent to consider the policies and procedures for dealing with detainees in accordance with international humanitarian law and human rights law.”

The paper shows no awareness that two years earlier the NZ SAS had captured between 50 and 70 detainees and transferred them to US custody.

The Ministry simply recommends that New Zealand should convey its expectations about the treatment of detainees to the US government and the authorities in Afghanistan.

More than a year later, the Ministry finally cabled the New Zealand Embassy in Washington to deliver the following message from Wellington.

“The Embassy wishes to convey to the State Department its understanding that the treatment of detainees transferred to US custody is in accordance with any applicable international humanitarian and human rights laws and in particular with respect to the transfer of any detainee who may be determined to be POW. New Zealand intends to meet its obligations under the Third Geneva Convention.”

In 2006, New Zealand made its first formal inquiry about the fate of the SAS detainees placed in US custody.

Pundit readers will recall that New Zealand learned nothing from the US response. As the NZ Defence Force says: “US authorities were not able to provide any information relating to persons in their custody, as they had no information to suggest any of those persons had been captured by New Zealand Forces.”

Perhaps this act of stone-walling by the Americans was the reason that the NZ SAS has not returned to combat duties in Afghanistan [or anywhere else] – yet.

It certainly provides grounds to suggest that before the next New Zealand Government digs itself any deeper into the Afghanistan conflict, there should be a thorough review of our strategy for engagement – and for our exit.